Although James Hector's first few months in Otago were taken up with establishing an office and recruiting staff, he immediately started to explore the region. Cross-country routes linking settlements were little more than tracks, and travel was often slow and hazardous. But to Hector it was more straightforward than the isolation of western Canada. Good topographic maps had already been prepared for much of the region by provincial surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, so that Hector could concentrate on geology.
East and Central Otago
During 1862 Hector made several trips into the hinterland of Otago, initially guided by J.T. Thomson. He visited gold workings at Lawrence, coal seams at Kaitangata, and explored the Manuherikia valley, reporting on the alluvial gold discoveries there. He also travelled along the coast of north Otago, describing the distinctive volcanic rocks and limestone outcrops.
Hector made his first visit to the Wanaka district and lower Matukituki valley in late 1862. He then crossed the Crown Range to Queenstown, visiting diggings at Arrowtown. The first two months of 1863 were spent exploring the Matukituki valley, and looking for a route to the West Coast. Hector's party crossed an alpine saddle (later named Hector Col), and travelled down the Arawhata River, which they followed to within sight of the Tasman Sea. It was clearly too difficult to be a viable route. The following month Hector returned to explore the Greenstone valley on the western side of Lake Wakatipu.
Within a year of his arrival, Hector's reconnaissance surveys had covered much of Otago except the rugged mountains of Fiordland. The deeply indented coastline had already been charted in detail by the British Navy paddle-steamer HMS Acheron between 1848-51. Hector undertook a 6-month exploration of Fiordland on the 20-tonne schooner Matilda Hayes, leaving Port Chalmers in May 1863. Once in a fiord, Hector would explore the coastline using the ship's whaleboat, often being away for days at a time.
In late August the Matilda Hayes entered the lower Hollyford River, and continued into Lake McKerrow. Leading a small party, Hector walked up the Hollyford valley, over Key Summit and arrived at Lake Wakatipu. Although he thought that he was the first to discover this route, he had been forestalled a few months earlier by Patrick Caples. Returning to the ship, the trip continued, and the Matilda Hayes finally returned to Port Chalmers in January 1864.
Through much of 1864 Hector was involved in office work and organising an international exhibition, to be held in Dunedin from January to May 1865. In August 1864 he explored the inaccessible coastal area between the mouths of the Clutha and Mataura Rivers, now known as the Catlins. Because the inland area was inaccessible, he used a whaleboat around the coast. What was intended to be a short trip turned in to six weeks of frustration as he was trapped by bad weather near Owaka, but in the end he had completed his geological reconnaissance of Otago.